[Ppnews] Tortured by Solitude

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Sun Nov 6 12:05:22 EST 2011

Tortured by Solitude

Published: November 5, 2011


AT 5:15 p.m. I found myself pacing compulsively 
back and forth across my 10-foot-by-14-foot cell 
in Iran’s Evin prison, muttering reassurances to 
myself and kneading my nervous hands together 
into one fat fist. “Don’t worry,” I told myself, 
“this is probably your last day alone, they can’t 
just let you go crazy in here.”

It was 2009 and the beginning of winter. I had 
been in prison in Iran ­ along with my fiancé, 
Shane Bauer, and our friend Josh Fattal ­ since 
the summer, when we were arrested and charged 
with espionage after hiking somewhere near the 
country’s unmarked border with Iraqi Kurdistan. 
For the last three months, I had been in solitary 
confinement 24 hours a day. Only after going on a 
hunger strike for five days was I allowed to 
visit Shane and Josh for a few minutes at a time, 
all of us blindfolded in a padded interrogation 
room. The day before, one of my interrogators had 
told me that we would now be allowed daily 
half-hour visits in an open-air cell. As the hour 
for our visit approached, I began pacing my room 
frantically, terrified that the promise had just 
been a ploy and that the guards wouldn’t be 
coming. By 6:15, I was sweating and tears were streaming down my face.

It’s impossible to exaggerate how much the 
company of another human being means when you’ve 
been cut off from the world and stripped of your rights and freedom.

After two months with next to no human contact, 
my mind began to slip. Some days, I heard phantom 
footsteps coming down the hall. I spent large 
portions of my days crouched down on all fours by 
a small slit in the door, listening. In the 
periphery of my vision, I began to see flashing 
lights, only to jerk my head around to find that 
nothing was there. More than once, I beat at the 
walls until my knuckles bled and cried myself 
into a state of exhaustion. At one point, I heard 
someone screaming, and it wasn’t until I felt the 
hands of one of the friendlier guards on my face, 
trying to revive me, that I realized the screams were my own.

Of the 14 and a half months, or 9,840 hours, I 
was held as a political hostage at Evin prison in 
Tehran, I spent 9,495 of them in solitary 
confinement. When I was released just over a year 
ago, I was shocked to find out that the United 
Against Torture, one of the few conventions the 
United States has ratified, does not mention 
solitary confinement. I learned that there are 
untold numbers of prisoners around the world in 
solitary, including an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 
in the United States. According to the United 
Nations’ special rapporteur on torture, Juan 
Méndez, the practice appears to be “growing and 
diversifying in its use and severity.”

Amy Fettig at the American Civil Liberties Union 
told me: “In the U.S. we use solitary as a 
routine prison administrative practice. It’s not 
something that’s used as a last recourse, as it 
should be.” Last summer, prisoners at Pelican Bay 
prison in California went on a hunger strike to 
end the practice of isolating some prisoners for 
more than 22 hours a day. The strike spread until 
thousands of prisoners were participating. Only 
when officials agreed to review the use of 
solitary confinement did the 
accept food.

Such a review is needed for prisons everywhere, 
and particularly in the United States, the 
country with, according to Ms. Fettig, the most 
prisoners in solitary confinement in the world. 
One of the problems, according to Mr. Méndez, is 
that there is no universally accepted definition 
of solitary confinement. Mr. Méndez and his staff 
defined it as “more than 22 to 24 hours isolated 
from anyone else except for guards.” They are 
calling for clearer standards regarding “what is 
disciplinary and what moves into the category of 
‘severe pain and suffering, either physical or 
mental,’ which is definitely prohibited under 
international law.” He has called for a ban on 
prolonged solitary confinement, and I very much 
agree. Any case that lasts more than 15 days should be carefully investigated.

You don’t have to beat someone to inflict pain 
and suffering; the psychological torture of 
prolonged solitary confinement leaves no marks, 
but its effects are severe and long-lasting. 
Fortunately, the guards did come that winter day. 
Once I began to have short daily visits with 
Shane and Josh, my mental health improved, but 
only marginally. At that point I was sunk so deep 
inside myself that there were days when I was 
brought out to visit them and couldn’t 
communicate or even look them in the eyes. After 
prison, I was diagnosed with post-traumatic 
stress disorder. I still pace and wring my hands 
when I am nervous; I still have nightmares and 
trouble sleeping. I stopped going to a certain 
exercise class because the texture of the ceiling 
reminded me of the ceiling in my cell.

Though what the government of Iran did to us was 
sickening and flagrantly unjust, I consider us 
lucky. We never felt forgotten; we knew that our 
families, friends and supporters would not give 
up fighting for us. And since I was released last 
year, and Shane and Josh were freed in September, 
we have gotten more sympathy than most wrongfully 
detained prisoners receive in a lifetime.

It’s wonderful to begin my life again, and every 
day I feel more free, but I can’t help thinking 
about the thousands of others who are alone right 
now. I believe the excessive use of solitary 
confinement constitutes cruel and unusual 
punishment ­ that it is torture. The United 
Nations should proscribe this inhumane practice, 
and the United States should take the lead role in its eradication.

Sarah Shourd is a writer who was imprisoned in 
Iran from July 2009 to September 2010.

Freedom Archives
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

415 863-9977

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